Making a Holy Week journey with inquisitive preschoolers

How do you share the Easter story with a child? You have to talk about Jesus’ suffering and dying. Then you have to explain how the Son of God overcomes death and rises again.
Our boys are preschoolers, so we haven’t focused much on talking about Easter in the past. But this year Leo is 5 and understanding almost everything.
Besides, it’s not just a story. It’s true. It’s what defines our faith. So this year we have been talking more about Easter and why it matters.
The other day, in between dropping pretzels on the car floor and debating which superhero we liked best, we started talking about Jesus’ love for us—and for everyone.
“Yes,” Leo said. “God loves everyone—except bank robbers.”
“Actually,” I told him, “He even loves bank robbers.”
“He does?” Leo said, a bit incredulously. So I explained that Jesus died on the cross not just for Leo and Daniel and Mama and Baba and our friends and family, but also for every single person in the world.
Then I told the boys a story about a robber who became Jesus’ friend: the Good Thief.
Leo loves a new story, so he listened quietly. Then he started asking questions. And I realized I couldn’t even remember the thief’s name. Leo asked me to look it up for him, and I was able to tell him later that evening.
“Dismas!” he said. “That’s a funny name! What was the name of the Bad Thief?”
You would think I would have done a more thorough job with my research. I had to go back to the Internet. And, to my surprise, Wikipedia doesn’t call him “the Bad Thief.” He’s called “the Impenitent Thief.” That’s a bit of a mouthful for a preschooler, but it’s certainly kinder and more Christian for us to refer to him that way.
As it turns out, he even has a name—or a few names—though they’re apocryphal. So I was able to tell Leo that the other thief was named Gesmas.
Even more fascinating was learning that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Golden Legend referenced both the Penitent Thief (whom he calls Titus) and the Impenitent Thief (whom he calls Dumachus) as members of a band of robbers who attacked the Holy Family during their flight into Egypt.
I had to find the lines in the poem. Longfellow quotes Jesus as saying:
Then on my right and my left side,
These thieves shall both be crucified
And Titus thenceforth shall abide
  In paradise with me.
You learn something new—and maybe it’s true and maybe it’s not—every day. But I do love discovering a new poem.
With Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday still ahead of us, I’m sure the questions will continue to come. The question I have the most trouble answering is “Why did the people want to kill Jesus?” Leo asks that again and again—probably because his mother is giving such poor answers.
What he accepts, however, without question is that Jesus died and rose from the dead.
Maybe it’s because he doesn’t understand the finality of death.
Maybe it’s because he doesn’t understand resurrection.
Or maybe it’s because he has the powerful and trusting faith of a child.

“But Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them;
for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:14)

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.